Glyndebourne romance replaced by new realism: David Lister admires the rebuilt opera house but grieves for the old

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THE first view of the new pounds 33m Glyndebourne opera house is not the most comforting: a metallic grey, square box of lead panels creates an eerily alien presence on the South Downs.

Which is a pity. For beneath the metallic top the circular, red-brick theatre unveiled yesterday and on schedule to open in May, is a stunning achievement, completed within 18 months of the old opera house being demolished and funded entirely from private donations.

Recessed into the natural slope of the site, the building is largely masked from the surrounding hills. The foyers and walkways with tented roofs have a conservatory feel. Balconies on the upper levels provide breathtaking views of the countryside. The 1,200-seater, horseshoe-shaped auditorium has an unexpected cosiness - vertical stacking of the three tiers means that seats farthest from the stage are still three metres nearer than in the old, smaller Glyndebourne.

The stage is larger, the audience increased by 50 per cent, the number of cheaper seats considerably greater than they were. And the opera house now leads directly on to the gardens and lakes for the interval champagne picnic. It is an imaginative, tasteful and brilliant building.

But there is no disguising that the Glyndebourne experience is forever changed. The new is remarkable but it is difficult not to lament the passing of the old.

Gone are the old Mildmay tea room, replaced by a characterless brick-floored barn; the quietly romantic walled garden adjacent to the old Mildmay is also gone; as is the delightfully incongruous tennis court; the old long bar; picture gallery and of course the old auditorium.

This is no longer opera in a country house where one can stroll from the stalls into the library and organ room and into the garden. It is opera in an opera house. The grounds, garden and lakes will still make it an unforgettable day out but the unique intimacy is gone. Conversely, the new experience will be slightly more egalitarian. Prices will range down from pounds 100 to pounds 10 rather than pounds 90 to pounds 35 and there is a much larger percentage of cheap seats, all of which have excellent views.

Sir George Christie, the chairman, unveiling the new opera house yesterday, said: 'We have tried . . . to disguise the bulk of the building by digging into the hill. We have tried hard in the auditorium to create essentially a sense of intimacy. We have tried resolutely to create acoustics which marry the conflicting characteristics of resonance with clarity. We have been at pains to create a building here which has a true sympathy with its surroundings.'

Generally, those viewing the new structure were enthusiastic. 'Terrific and architecturally appropriate for its setting,' Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Arts Council, said.

Graeme Kay, editor of Opera Now, was more ambivalent, praising the interior but adding: 'The first view of it with the lead fly tower is rather like a crashed space ship but, in 10 years time, when it is covered with ivy, that may not matter.'

Yesterday, Sir George promised bigger audiences, a better chance of getting tickets and more chance of maintaining the highest international standards. The experience will be different but in its own way memorable.

Catalonia's pride, page 10

(Photographs omitted)